Be a Doer Not a Dreamer (On Reading the “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralysed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just..DO. You think, “I wish I could travel” – you sell your crappy car and buy a ticket and go to Bangkok right now. I’m serious. You say, “I want to be a writer” – guess what? A writer is someone who writes every day. Start writing. Or: You don’t have a job? Get one. ANY JOB. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical dream opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. get a job. Work. Do until you can do something else.” (Shonda Rhimes, The Year of Yes)

It is scary to admit that you are struggling with something and to confront parts of yourself that you’ve always ignored. Today I attended a personal and professional development workshop about becoming more self aware and better understanding oneself as part of the Auwal Socio-Economic Institute Future Leaders Fellowship Programme and as part of the workshop, we spoke about the Johari Window, a chart with four quadrants where one axis is labelled “knowledge of ourselves” and the other axis is labelled “knowledge others have about us”. In each quadrant lies a different “self”, and where others have knowledge about us but we do not have that knowledge ourselves is our blind self, or the self that is not known to us. Where we do not have knowledge of ourselves and others do not have that knowledge either, our unknown self can be found, and in that quadrant there is unknown personal potential and potentially exciting learning and growth. In the workshop someone asked how one goes about discovering their unknown self given that that self is composed of parts of yourself that are not known by you or by others, and in response, another participant shared that to learn about themselves they found it was helpful to have as many different experiences as possible.

This idea is echoed by Shonda Rhimes book “The Year of Yes” a funny and moving book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading over the past few days. The book feels like a long conversation over a cup of tea, in which Shonda Rhimes imparts lesson after lesson on transforming one’s life for the better. Shonda Rhimes is the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and other shows (as she notes throughout the book, she owns Thursday night) and she opens the book by admitting that sharing about herself and being exposed and vulnerable feels terrifying, and that writing this book was a very very difficult process. Because sharing is difficult and something that makes her feel uncomfortable, she pushed through the fear and discomfort and wrote the book anyway.

The book gets its title from a conversation she had with her older sister Delores in 2013 when her sister was focused on making the Thanksgiving meal and Shonda Rhimes was telling her about a series of wonderful and amazing invitations she had just received. In response, her sister asks her if she is going to accept any of her invitations and Shonda is confused she hadn’t seriously contemplated accepting any of the invitations.  But as she leaves the kitchen to tend to her baby, her sister mumbles “You never say yes to anything”, and these six words become life-changing words that are the catalyst for rich experiences, new understandings and remarkable personal growth. The words made her feel deeply uncomfortable, and after realizing that her sister is right and that she is miserable, she decides to spend an entire year not saying no to anything even if it scares her. The book is a chronicling of her experiment and it is a fantastic book. It’s conversational, honest, personal, funny and most of all inspirational because Shonda is candid about her fears and challenges and does not attempt to present herself as perfect. Hearing about how she was able to discover new things about herself while still feeling scared about new things made me feel like I too can confront things that scare me and live a richer life for it.

The book was an important personal read because I identified with Shonda Rhimes description of herself as being an introverted shy person who has never wanted to be in the public eye. As a three year old, her happiest childhood memories are playing in the kitchen pantry with canned goods imagining worlds peopled with rich characters. I too remember playing lots of “pretend games” as a child and reading and telling stories enthusiastically to my nanny when I was three. As an adult, Shonda Rhimes admits that she doesn’t do interviews and the media events she has to do as part of her network obligations make her feel ill. She realizes that in interviews she only speaks in “Athlete Talk”, where”anything human, anything honest” she keeps to herself.  And so the first yes she tackles is an interview with Jimmy Kimmel about her political drama Scandal. From there the “yeses” only increase, and though each one is difficult in its own way, with each “yes” she becomes more comfortable and willing to embrace challenging and difficult moments. Among the things she does in that year and the months that follow it is lose over a hundred and fifteen pounds, give the commencement speech at Dartmouth in front of over 10,000 people, remove toxic people from her life, be a more forgiving mother to herself, make time to play (for her this manifests as spending time with her daughters) confront passive aggressive behaviour in other people, stop being a doormat, and speak the truths necessary for her to be her most authentic self (for Rhimes this involves a difficult conversation about never wanting to get married and ending a relationship). It’s an incredible year, and though it is not at all a compehensive list here are some of my take-aways/favourite quotes from the read. (Disclaimer: I read this an an ebook on my Android tablet, and could only see the percentage of the book I had completed instead of page numbers. So none of the quotes have page numbers)

  1. It is possible to develop your weaknesses and become stronger and better at things you find difficult. With determination and courage, fear doesn’t have to stop you from living your best life. It is possible to become a more well-rounded person.
  2. In her Dartmouth speech, Shonda talks about finding a cause, and something weekly to give back to other people. I like this idea and am looking at literacy organizations this week that might be a good fit for me.
  3. It’s important to be honest and real about one’s struggles and admit that you find things difficult. Rhimes talks about how she is always asked by reporters how she manages motherhood and working life and while one response is to smile and talk about doing laundry late at night, the truth is that she has an amazing support structure and an amazing nanny named Jenny McCarthy. Shonda argues passionately that women are shamed for having help and for not mothering in ways that other people believe to be best (being judged for not making homemade treats is the example she gives) and tries to end “Mommy Wars” for herself and be open about what she finds difficult and how she works through it. Honesty is helpful for everyone, and Shonda talks about going through high school desperately trying to create Whitney Houston’s hair only to find out as an adult that Whitney Houston wore a wig. Knowing that even Whitney Houston doesn’t look like Whitney Houston would have saved her from a lot of heartache, and she makes a strong case for avoiding small talk, having real conversations and not misrepresenting your own life to others.
  4. You can be more productive and happier when you live an honest life. Shonda Rhimes talks in the book about how she hid from life and let issues fester before the “Year of Yes”, and that the complaining and regret took up a lot of mental space. As she committed to addressing her issues and confronting what she found difficult, she found that she had more free time because she got rid of the time wasted in “complaining and feeling sorry” for herself.
  5. You need to address your fears in a way that is authentic for you and allows you to be yourself. In the case of the Jimmy Kimmel interview for example, even though it’s a live show Shonda Rhimes realized that it would feel like a horrible experience for her if it was live. And so they did a taped show, something that was still scary and forced her out of her comfort zone, but didn’t cause her to stop functioning because of her emotional distress.
  6. It’s important to play as part of your self care. For Shonda Rhimes playing means being with her kids, and saying yes to playing for her meant saying yes to her “happy place” and giving herself the “permission to shift the focus of what is a priority from what is good for you to what makes you feel good.” When she made to play she was more joyful and better at writing and mothering and doing everything else that she does.
  7. Complaining is a waste of energy. In her chapter titled “Saying yes to my body” she describes the moment she realized that the seatbelt in her first-class airplane seat doesn’t fit her and how that moment triggered reflections about how and why she has become the size that she is. Her weight is upsetting not because she is striving for a specific body type but because she has kids and her joints ache and she is tired all the time. She recognizes how food is a way of hiding herself and also realizes that losing weight will mean having to give up foods that she loves and exercising, two things that she does not relish making a part of her life. What she realizes though is that she has at a yes crossroads, she either has to say yes to new health patterns or “say yes to “fatness” and buy bigger clothes, she can’t do nothing and still complain about her size. The deciding and doing is important because no health program will work unless “you decide that you are really and truly ready to do it. Meaning nothing works if you don’t actually decide that you are really truly ready to do it.”
  8. You need a team. Shonda talks in the book about her “Ride or Die” people, the people that are honest with her and wants what is best and who are sources of light in her life. As she describes it:

“It’s not merely about surrounding myself with people who treat me well. It’s also about surrounding myself with people whose self-worth, self-respect and values inspire me to elevate my own behaviour. People who requite that I stay truthful and kind and not totally crazy.”

Life is a team sport, and hearing how different people supported her along the way was a reminder to celebrate the fabulous people in my life and to strive to develop friendship that help me become the best version of myself.

9. Writing takes time and energy and dedication. This book was an testament to how much is needed of oneself in order to develop excellence. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Big Magic”, the last book I read spoke about never wanting to be a mother, and Shonda Rhimes in this book speaks about recognising that between her work and her children there is no room for another person. As she describes it, there is a door, and behind the door there are wonderful things to be found, but the door is 5 miles away and you have to run towards it in order to be able to open the door. The run is procrastination and doodling and youtube videos and staring at a blank page, and the more you run, the fitter you become and the easier and faster it is to complete that five mile run. Writing takes daily practice and hearing about Shonda Rhimes dedication makes me want to be a better and more consistent writer.

10. Your writing can heal you. Shonda Rhimes speaks about how her character Cristina Yang held parts of her that she was unable to express, and said things that she was unable to say. Creating Cristina helped her understand herself and understand the world better.

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